Tim James: My resignation from Platter’s explained

By , 20 May 2024



Tim James’s shelf of Platter’s.

I have been tasting, writing and doing bits of editorial work for Platter’s South African Wine Guide since 2001. At some stage I was given the essentially ceremonial title of Associate Editor (it never led to any sort of power on my part). I have declined to participate in its final “five star tasting” for some years, but it was not without a lot more thought that I have now resigned completely. The Guide is sigificant in the local wine industry, so I thought to share some of my thinking.

There are three basic reasons for my move. One is entirely personal: I have grown ever more reluctant to score wines, especially on the now rather ridiculous, hyper-inflated 100-point scale, and Platter’s was the only place where I had continued to do so. The other two basic, probably interlinked reasons, on which I will expand, are, first, that Platter’s can no longer count as the organ of record of South African wine that it once was, so that I find its shortcomings less tolerable. Second, there are those shortcomings: some of them have been around for a long time, and some have got worse over the past years, perhaps particularly since the Guide was bought by Diners Club in 2013.

I had hoped that the change in ownership would be dynamic and lead to revisioning a guide that has in most ways, with some tweakings, especially those consequent on the growth in the number of South African wines, stayed pretty much as it was originally conceived 40 years ago. There is a Platter’s app and a Platter’s website, but neither seems to have much resonance, and Platter’s is irrevocably associated with the book published late each year – a book that, after its bright cover is opened, even looks dull, lacking flair.

There was no revisioning. The person appointed as the new publisher did – or at least achieved – nothing of value that I’m aware of during his highly-paid tenure. The editor, the highly esteemed (including by me) Philip van Zyl, looks to have been obliged by financial throttling to accept additions to his already enormous workload involved in managing the guide in the way that the present model requires. I don’t know how Philip ever managed to do the much that he has done, and do it so efficiently; there was little chance that he would have the time, and the support from the owners, to even imagine taking it somewhere new, which is what I believe needs to happen if it is to survive usefully. Diners Club clearly have no such interest or vision; I guess that they concentrate on spending as little as possible – and on regretting having purchased it in the first place as a way of helping to energise a brand that fewer people than ever seem to have heard of.

I had intended resigning last year, but stayed on at the editor’s suggestion that it would be good for us to work one last edition together, as he was expecting to have to retire. His retiring, it became apparent, didn’t actually happen, and some months back I confirmed to him my intention to leave.

Let me expand a little on the reasons I gave above. I doubt if there is anyone in the world who has made as much use as I have of back-numbers of Platter’s. For articles, for the book I wrote, and for my general understanding, I have consulted them and pored over them. How else, for random examples, could anyone find out how many Cape producers of cabernet franc or gewurztraminer there were in 1995 or 2010. Or what wines were made by Delheim (and by whom) in 1990, or the growth in the number of producers based in the Swartland. Etc, etc. But, to the large extent that Platter’s has been the great work of record of the industry, it is no longer so. That is a huge loss, especially to wine historians

The number of significant producers who choose to not participate in the Guide (though it costs them essentially nothing!) has grown to be of real significance, and there seems no sign that this rate of attrition is likely to slow down. It has, I’d say, definitively reached a point that crucially reduces that great role as organ of record. I must say that I feel anger,and some contempt, for those producers who abstain – presumably because Platter’s plays no part in their marketing strategies, or they’re not getting the scores they think they deserve, or because they’re too damn lazy. Or whatever. Certainly they are not much considering the needs of the wine industry as a whole (even those who are so noble as to raise the prices of their wine in order to give the industry a better name internationally). Nor, even while sentimentally invoking South African wine tradition and culture, are they concerned at the damage they do to one of the great traditions of the past half-century, that has been widely envied in other producing countries. Ah well. Whatever. I don’t suppose they are likely to care about anything that doesn’t suit their own needs, whatever I say.

I must, if I am to speak about my resignation from Platter’s, say something about what I regard as its shortcomings. As eloquent example, there’s no need, really, to go beyond just two notable results given in the current, 2024, edition. 1: Alheit, by comment consent at the peak (if not alone there) of Cape white wine, gets no five-star awards at all. 2: Porseleinberg, by common consent at the peak (if not alone there) of Cape syrah, scores 92 ­– it’s taster did not consider the wine worthy of even being put forward to the five-star tasting (though envisaging that time would “show its full complexity and more benevolent persona”, whatever that means).

The Alheit failure, you could see as just another of those unlucky things that happen in big blind tastings. But that is perhaps the point. Why have a blind tasting at all? Platter’s is meant to be a guide, not a competition, and this final tasting is done in such a way as to introduce a great deal of unreliability (perhaps there is no better way, given the tasting skills at the editor’s disposal). How to regard a guide to South African wine that has such ups and downs in scoring many wines over the years, and that gives some unquestionably top wine the same ranking as many worthy but undoubted also-rans? Frankly, it’s not unusual for some of the successes and failures to be somewhat ridiculous. I have winced more than a few times, including at what has happened with some wines that I have very carefully appraised and rated, only to see them pushed down (or up) by a few spitters and sniffers at the final tasting – with their ratings to (almost fraudulently) appear over my own initials in the published Guide.

If the Alheit example points primarily at a failure of method that Platter’s has not managed to resolve, the Porseleinberg story surely implies the inadequacy of some of the dozen-plus tasters involved. Some are, by any measure, amateurs, perhaps involved in the wine industry at some time in the past or obtaining a qualification dozens of years ago, but now having comparatively narrow experience of what is happening with local, let alone international, wines – while the wine revolution moves on at a pace. It’s difficult, of course, finding enough truly competent and experienced tasters with the time to deal with all these samples in a few months, especially if you’re determined that they have no commercial connections to wine producers (no retailers or distributors, obviously no winemakers).

The  editor has tried to bring in some new, younger tasters. And there’s a tiny degree of editorial oversight of the earlier tasting process, with a bit of blind retasting done occasionally (I’m not aware of it being prescribed in the case of Porseleinberg), but, inevitably, unless the team is to be at least carefully managed (I’d suggest), and preferably of higher and more uniform competence, different standards and tastes and understandings are going to wreak some level of havoc with the scores – and thus damage the value of a guide constituted like this one. It’s a problem that Platter’s has certainly not solved, to its cost. No wine guide is going to please everybody or be thought of as infallible, and the problem is less significant when there is just one taster involved. But Platter’s has become just too unreliable, I think.

I could go on.Those seem to me the main problems of the Guide, however, in a context of a rather lacklustre and worn-out image. I think it needs to imaginatively change – somehow – to respond to all around it that is new and challenging. Or else it will continue its decline into irrelevance. It gives me no satisfaction to criticise like this and I do genuinely wish Platter’s well. Perhaps it’s not too late, and I hope I’m being premature in leaving, but I felt that I’d rather avoid the agitation and even occasional embarrassment of continuing to be closely associated with a diminished project that has been an important part of my year’s work – a part that I have, at its best, felt to be a particular privilege – for more than two decades.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. His bookines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


17 comment(s)

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    Keith | 18 June 2024

    2012 i realised what a contrived, money-making ‘scam’ Platter is.
    Then, wines were not ‘blind-tasted’
    Ernst Gouws and I did a ‘tasting (blind!) of a few shiraz options.
    We both agreed the Kaapzicht was the ‘stand-out’.
    we collectively, purchased a few 1000L
    both Ernst and my label (Catch of the Day – COTD) were bottled at Koelenhof (on the same bottling run!) – merely stopped to change bottles – i was present!

    Platter 2012:
    Kaapzicht – Shiraz 4 stars
    E Gouws – Shiraz 3 & half stars
    COT Day – Shiraz 3 stars

    difference being, a 20% ‘deemed’ inferior quality of COTD vs Kaapzicht.
    Skud maar net die kop!

    Roy | 29 May 2024

    This is very sad and certainly a set back to our wine industry ad especially the wine drinker – searching for objective assistance!

    Hopefully these experts will continue their invaluable advice and comments on line.

    Bachus Wine Club

    Angela Lloyd | 21 May 2024

    After Greg de Bruyn’s comment, I feel obliged to confirm I empathise with all Tim has to say. I don’t believe he has shown arrogance or disdain towards the rest of us tasters. He clearly points to where the faults lie, not only with the owners, but that each taster should seek second opinions (tasted blind) on wines they’re unsure of, something I do.
    Producers may veto a taster if there’s a solid reason and accepted by the editor. Similarly, a taster may request not to review certain producers; having a personal friendship or, even, not liking the wines are valid reasons.

    Erhard Wolf | 21 May 2024

    The only accurate record of current and historical wine data for South Africa is the SAWIS data base. Since the early 1960’s vineyard planting, uprooting and production, amongst other data, has been diligently gathered, normalized, recorded and published by SAWIS. As a long time participant in the wine industry, I am not aware of any other publication that can realistically claim to have more accurate wine data for South Africa.

      Tim James | 21 May 2024

      You’re right, Erhard. But we do also need to know as much as possible about what happens to the grapes off the vines that Sawis records so diligently.

    Greg de Bruyn | 20 May 2024

    Not cool, Tim. We all understand the constraints and shortcomings of the business model, but I think your arrogant disdain of your erstwhile teammates is shameful. Is The Widow showing her grizzled visage again?

      Jacques de Wet | 21 May 2024

      I am not sure Tim evoked anything that he should be ashamed of. He is a learned man of his trade with a vast experience. Sharing his experience might just be the jolt the business model needs to reinvent itself.

      Tim James | 21 May 2024

      Was not trying to be cool, Greg. There are some excellent, widely experienced tasters for Platter’s. Incidently, whether it is a fact a team or a bunch of individuals largely doing their own thing is open to question.

    Greg Sherwood | 20 May 2024

    Interesting reading indeed. As a writer, reviewer and (er uhm… part time merchant) … I have followed the trials and tribulations of both reviewers and producers submitting wines to Platters over the years.

    What resonates with me is Tim’s comment… “Platter’s is meant to be a guide, not a competition”… WOW… so true. If it’s not a competition, then why taste blind? But then that leads to one of Tim’s (and many producers’ whinges) … the quality and experience of some of the judges.

    I too, if asked to pick out two particular shortfalls, would have identified both the Alheit debarcle and the Porseleinberg travesty. Having just recently written a full (sighted) vertical assessment of 2010 to 2021 Porseleinberg for Winemag, and as someone who is generally more inclined to Cab and Bordeaux Blends than Syrah, quite clearly saw the incredible regalness of this iconic wine. Personally, I would argue that any reviewer worth their salt would rate this wine 95+ sited or blind… without any quibble… for five stars!

    A lot of producers have expressed their disatisfaction to me over the recent years about the quality of tasters and the clear lack of experience in order to really identify the true fine wines out there… with so many passing under the radar.

    Platter remains an admirable tome and one which will undoubtedly continue to grind along for several years to come. But like Tim, I do regret that more is not made of this national literary institution.

    Tabbers | 20 May 2024

    I think Tim has done a terrific job of outlining why Platters is no longer a jewel in South Africa’s wine crown. Within the obvious confines of people politics at least. I do, however, take issue with laying blame, in part at least, with wine producers.
    A number of years ago I was discussing the very same issues regarding Platters tasting and scores with one of the more outspoken wine makers in the Cape. It was mentioned they had stopped entering wines for review in Platters. When asked why the reply was along the lines of; “why would I let my wines be reviewed by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing while sitting at home puffing away on a cigarette”.
    To say I was taken aback is an understatement. I had, until then, held the guide in high esteem. If that’s what the bread and butter of what kept Platters going thought then it’s surely fair comment, but why didn’t the publisher know?
    The reason I take issue with Tim is if this was known by wine makers nearly a decade ago, why hasn’t Platters already addressed the issue? To expect wine makers to not be somewhat mercinary about where and how they receive publicity is pointing the finger of blame in the wrong direction. The success of a winery is dependent on not just good but also consistent recognition. Of course they will pull support for something that no longer coincides with what they and their loyal consumers think. Considering the article is clear that it’s major failing is how it tastes and scores wine, surely that’s at risk of becoming a classic case of victim blaming?

      Tim James | 20 May 2024

      Tabbers: I have no satisfactory answer to you, because you’re approximately right. I just naively prefer the other producers to the one you use as an example, the ones who look wider than themselves, at least for a while, and don’t move sharply and cynically in their own interests. The phrase “loyalty” might also be invoked somewhere.

      Thanks to everyone for their thoughtful comments. I was fearful of vituperation in one direction or another and am glad it hasn’t happened.

    Rupert McNaught Davis | 20 May 2024

    With all those wine producers not bothering to submit their wines to Platter anymore,the publication will be a lot platte.

    Wesley C | 20 May 2024

    Thanks Tim. You offer a view that I’m sure many have had for a period of time. Hopefully the article has been well received by those able to change Platter’s future.
    The example you offer of Porseleinberg viewed over the past three editions is relevant.
    I’m curious as to what has prompted you to close this ‘chapter’ after what I’d imagine must have been a protracted period of time thinking to do so.
    I’ll miss your influence in the guide.

      Tim James | 20 May 2024

      It’s maybe a bit like reluctantly abandoning a personal close relationship and forcing oneself to admit that it’s finished. When things that were once good start going, it can be difficult to decide the point at which to say: enough.

    Johan Raubenheimer | 20 May 2024

    It’s a shame to hear of both Tim and Dave’s departure. To be honest though, I am not surprised.
    I resonate with most of what Tim so eloquently detailed and not in the least with the rating and scoring. Those who share my company when we sample products from my cellar will attest to my regular rantings about the lack of adequate/ proper assessment of certain wines.
    Thank you to both these dedicated and passionate reviewers for your contributions to a benchmark publication for many years! We will indeed look out for your assessments and opinions elsewhere.
    I trust the owners of the publication will take heed and act with honour.

    Kwispedoor | 20 May 2024

    “I have winced more than a few times, including at what has happened with some wines that I have very carefully appraised and rated, only to see them pushed down (or up) by a few spitters and sniffers at the final tasting – with their ratings to (almost fraudulently) appear over my own initials in the published Guide.” WOW. Surely, at the very least, it’s easy enough to indicate that it’s an altered rating, and not yours? Not cool at all.

    I was genuinely surprised that Alheit didn’t receive any five stars in the 2024 guide. If you’ve done enough blind tastings you’ll know that results can be very unsuspected, but there were some achingly beautiful wines amongst those 2022’s. To not be awarded even a single five star amongst them is certainly problematic. And the 2021 vintage definitely yielded one of the very best Porseleinbergs ever. Just 92 points for that wine (especially considering where scores have gone to in modern times, and compared to the scores for other wines in the guide) begs for a situation where the wine should have been reevaluated.

    The guide will sorely miss you, Tim! Hopefully, someone from Diner’s Club’s top brass wakes up to what needs to be done here. And one of the first things should be to re-recruit you.

    David Swingler | 20 May 2024

    For the record, I too have resigned from Platter this year, after 27 consecutive editions from the late 90s. Tim’s eloquent setting out of his reasons resonate strongly with me, although we at no stage discussed our mutual departure. Let’s just say I no longer share a strategic vision with the owners of the Guide. ‘Lack thereof’ being more pertinent. I too respect both Philip van Zyl as an editor, and the DNA of the Guide in its hey day, but muddled (and tight-fisted) ownership by a muddling owner is throttling it to death.

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